Friday, September 08, 2006

Beastly Beauty

The problem of large group shows is the muddying of the works when combined with too many others, even in a show where the curator’s intentions are clear and their choice of artists impeccable. A week prior to the opening of the new show ‘Beauty and the Beast’ at the Fieldgate Gallery I saw curator Laura White’s exhibition at the Transition gallery, Laura has produced one of the best individual shows I have seen in some time and I have no doubt that her skills as a curator match her skills as an artist, however this group show appears mired by the numbers of works on show. With co-curator Richard Livingston she has invited 29 artists to contribute to the show on themes around the classic tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’, Livingston and White also contribute a piece each.

In the expansive space of the Fieldgate Gallery the number of works are many and therefore not swamped by the building, unfortunately the sheer variety of work on show might break the curatorial thread, the eye is too distracted by the surfeit of visual information. However, there are some great pieces, maybe the vagueries of personal taste get in the way with those that failed to grab me. Considering the scale of the task with this show White and Livingston have pulled together a group of artists who have produced work of great quality. It would be churlish of me to complain about the work that failed to attract my attention, in fact once the distraction of the numerous works had subsided I began to really enjoy some of the pieces. With the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ analogy ringing through each piece the question of ‘attractive’ artwork is a sticky point, too much art seems to fall too heavily into the function of decoration and Livingston and White kick this away with the curatorial aims of this particular show.

Angela Bartram’s video makes you want to wince and laugh at the same time, a woman is licking an Alsatian dog on the lips, this repeated licking is reciprocated by the dog. To watch this immediately brings a vast array of questions to mind, with another human this action would be either sexual or brutal, between dogs this is obviously a bonding experience but between the two different species this raises questions about the exploitation of the animal in the context in which the viewer sees the film balanced with the complicity and agreement of the animal in the action.
A quieter and less disturbing video piece is Giles Perry’s short video involving a spider, a small decoy is used to attract the spider and gently pulled in an arc whilst the spider follows out of frame. The spider is chasing not following, its aggressive nature is being used to create this action. The question of the used and the user in this interplay is once again a strong theme.
A great coup for the curators is the inclusion of Phyllida Barlow’s larger sculptural piece, an enclosure has been created with large slightly offset panels of wood, they are nailed together with other smaller blocks of wood, it is an enclosure you can’t enter but its human scale is reassuring, each panel is covered in lumpy, glossy paint. It makes you want to look at it, it even has a scale you feel comfortable with but the manner in which it is made and finished is rough and unattractive. Two pieces by Max Hymes also play with the ideas of construction and the finish of the materials. Two plinths have been created, one is painted black, is a vase shape topped with a form reminiscent of a skull, the black painted finish of the main plinth is matched by the same colour of the skull shape, it is pieced together with beads and also has the appearance of an overgrown blackberry. The other piece is yellow, the plinth is topped with a spinning top shape and above that a pineapple constructed from yellow beads. I am not sure where Hymes is trying to lead me but once again these highly crafted sculptures have elements that have overlaps and appear to have been left somewhat deliberately unfinished.
The final piece to catch my eye was Amy Hurst’s balloons sculpture, two black balloons inflated with helium have been released from a length of rope to rise to their full extent, one sits against ceiling unable to rise further, the other has risen to join its companion but is unable to reach the ceiling as its progress has been stalled by the inclusion of a black plastic sack which envelopes it, the weight of the sack continuously holds it from its final destination. They are both in a state of imprisonment but somehow the differing states of their imprisonment disturb me, why would I be happier to see them suffer the same restrictive state rather than the individual states they currently occupy?.
Despite my reservations about the scale of this show it has crept up on me, from the initial point of distraction with the numbers of artists and variety of work on show to the final pleasing feeling induced by the more successful works, and all this achieved with some very disturbing ideas and imagery.

I am in no doubt the selection of artists for this show by the curators was inspired, if the overall feelings I am left with after seeing the show in its totality were intended and manipulated by the curators then they really are geniuses.


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